Review: Under America (Mortar Theatre Company)

Lack of focus unravels epic saga

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Mortar Theatre presents
   
Under America
  
Written by Jacob Juntunen
Directed by
Rached Edwards Harvith
at The
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through September 26th  |  tickets: $12-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Jacob Juntunen deserves some props for diving headfirst into territory many writers nowadays fear to tread—the world of epic theatre. Juntunen’s newest play for his Mortar Theatre cohorts, Under America, spans months of time and travels through a smorgasbord of locations, some realistic, some surreal. Clocking in at just under Under America 10 three hours, it’s safe to say the play tackles a lot. Unfortunately, the ambitious piece tries to knot together too many threads, and Mortar’s production teeters a bit too close to chaos.

Under America is mostly about the Cabrini-Green public housing development and one journalist’s (Stephanie Stroud) attempts to understand issues that belie so much poverty in this country. Her story is interwoven with the tale of a youth from Cabrini-Green (Jon Sharlow) finding himself awash in the judicial system. Through time spent in solitary confinement, he discovers a prison wardrobe-to-Narnia which transports him to a bizarre system of tunnels brimming with strange characters “under America.” We also get to see how Sam deals with the boy’s family as well as her lawyer girlfriend, disconnected mother, and right-leaning father, who also happens to be a politician. Juntunen sets out to tell a big story, and this one is gigantic.

The play unravels due to a lack of focus. Angels in America succeeds so well because all the stories plug into each other thematically. Here, it is less compelling. Some storylines could be tossed out completely without shattering the macrocosm; Sam’s struggle to come out of the closet to her parents comes to mind, or any of the scenes with Jackie (Jazmin Corona), a social worker who gives a handful of opinions on Sam’s relationship and the social health of the country at large. The weaker character relationships should be weeded. They provide some interesting nuances, but don’t have the life-or-death gravitas that the driving issues tap into to keep the audience interested. Basically, the stakes vary widely.

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For me, the most interesting section of the show was the dark, weird journey to the mythical belly of the American prison system. Michael, the young man, goes below, looking for his father through layers of hallucinations, doing the bidding of a cat-obsessed inmate and stoic warden, among others. The trip, which comprises most of the second act (of three), is unnerving, unpredictable, and fascinating. It was the tale I wanted to watch play out most of all.

For her part, director Rachel Edwards Harvith clicks with the script. Even with fistfuls of characters and plots, she never ignores a single one. Her dedication to the script  comes through in every scene. The waves of information could’ve been better shaped, though, and she should have picked certain ideas to really stick to the audience instead of letting them all surge over us.

Under America 07As a unit, the cast comes across as wooden. Some of the individual performances are magnetic, like Sharlow, Stroud, and Sentell Harper (who plays Michael’s brother). The group scenes ring hollow; the actors can’t keep their connection over the entire show. William J. Watt, however, deserves a special mention for his performance as Rob, Sam’s father. He gives charisma and caring to a character that could easily be stereotyped and set aside. He’s not the only talented one on-stage—there are some great moments dotting the production, but as a whole, the acting is inconsistent.

Let’s not forget that this is Mortar Theatre’s second production ever. They are a ballsy group of artists for sure. Even though Under America might get ensnared in its own web, there is a lot of talent and intelligence at work. They like to ask big questions and explore unique perspective—one hypothesis in the show links products manufactured by prisoners to concentration camps, for example. With some more generous use of the backspace button, Juntunen and company could easily hit gold with their upcoming season.

   
   
Rating: ★★
 
 

 

 

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REVIEW: Resurrection Blues (Eclipse Theatre)

Beyond the crucifixion

 

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Eclipse Theatre presents
 
Resurrection Blues
 
by Arthur Miller 
directed by Nathaniel Swift
Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 9th
(more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

A little miracle is taking place at the Greenhouse Theatre CenterEclipse Theatre is brilliantly executing a late and oft misunderstood play by Arthur Miller . Don’t be deceived by the primitive set, the rather flat proscenium space or relatively low production values. Director Nathaniel Swift’s vision for Miller’s only satire works around all these shortcomings. Even the monochromatic set design (Steph Charaska ), whose cheesy faux rocks look like they came off the set of the original Star Trek, become imbued with a kind of poetry, as do the silent, dancing Cuentistas (Jazmin Corona, N. K. Gutierrez, and Lizbeth Silva) who pull double-duty pushing the set pieces between scenes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA With the exception of Jesus geeks, so much about Resurrection Blues could be lost upon the audience—as its 2006 premier in London demonstrates, review after review. By all accounts its unveiling at the Old Vic, under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey and its director, Robert Altman, was an epic fail. What a difference a great or even good production makes for a play’s reception. Michael Billington, critic at The Guardian, who had seen a 2002 production in Minneapolis, calls Resurrection Blues “sparky and neo-Shavian,” sighting predominant problems with Altman’s direction.

However, Paul Taylor of The Independent, upon seeing the same production, surmises that “Miller did not have a natural gift for freewheeling satire;” Kate Bassett, in an earlier Independent review calls Miller’s satire “embarrassingly feeble;” and Jeremy Austin of The Stage calls Resurrection Blues a “lumbering, rambling half-finished effort,” speculating that the man problems of one character represents “Miller’s own impotence in the final years of his life.”

Well, they can all sit down to a big plate of crow. Impotent? Feeble? Lumbering? No. This is an American master at the top of his game. Of course, it is not The Crucible. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible 50 years before; he didn’t need to write another. Resurrection Blues is a satire that shares similar themes on religious zealotry, the political or social desperation that leads to either scapegoating or revolution or suicide. Mixed with a soupcon of rampant, hypocritical commercialism; magnified exponentially by reality-show culture; put on steroids; shaken, not stirred–that’s’ precisely how Swift and his cast play it.

Indeed, there were moments when I questioned whether I could keep up with Miller’s tenaciously mercurial wit or Eclipse’s exactingly fast pace. For those feeling up to it, this show will make them feel the burn—and maybe just a little glow afterwards.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA No review could possibly do all the performances justice. Let’s just say Nina O’Keefe as Jeanine, the wheelchair-bound, disillusioned Marxist, starts everyone off with an incredible warm-up. “I failed as a revolutionary and as a dope addict,” she says. She also fails at suicide–although that actually turns out to be a good thing. If fact, maybe even her attempt at suicide wasn’t such a bad thing either—especially since, after leaping from her window, Jeanine starts living each passing moment with passionate intensity. At the pavement she meets with the mysterious healing stranger at the heart of Resurrection Blues. He is nothing less than a spiritual revolutionary, whose mystical powers generate more political upset than any Uzi-packing militia.

Attempted suicide as religious experience—that’s only the beginning of Miller’s tasty treats. O’Keefe knows very well the poetic power of Miller’s dialogue. Her concentration never relents.

Want another little taste? There’s Henri Schulz (Ron Butts), Jeanine’s philosopher father, a Hamlet-like intellectual if ever there was. Butts plays a man too overeducated for his poor country’s good . . . or his family’s good . . . or his own good. He portrays Schulz with just the right balance of pompous erudition and guilty, compromised, liberal befuddlement. Especially in his homeland, an anonymous third world country, all he can be is compromised. His extreme privilege, philosophical bent, and vacillating social consciousness reduce him to being the ultimate fish out of water. He returns home only to repair his relationship with his daughter, the suicidal revolutionary. So he tells his cousin, the country’s frenetic dictator, General Felix Barriaux (Matt Welton)—the character with the man problem.

As for impotence, it’s not just in generalissimo’s dick, but also in his administration. Nothing much can be done, not even ruthlessly, in an impossible country, where even good plans go to rot with corruption, betrayal and backwardness far before their completion. Welton plays Barriaux with all the manic chagrin and desperation of a tyrant who will bring order by any means necessary, even when he admits it probably won’t stop their downward slide in the face of globalization.

But he still has one small trick up his sleeve: the capture and crucifixion of Jeanine’s mysteriously powerful and dangerously inspiring stranger. And he has sold the exclusive television rights to it to an American network. Millions can be gained, for sorely needed development, at the cost of one spiritually endowed freak. For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.

Here’s where the “Miller-can’t-do-satire” thing gets exposed for what it is. Miller guides a character down one road; the character turns tail and runs down another. Just when you think you’ve got the play figured out, it turns into another sort of play. It may all be too much to keep up with, but you’d better keep up or you’ll miss the laughs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Some of the best laughs occur at the expense of the facile and fecklessness Americans who arrive to shoot the crucifixion. Chief among savaged American prototypes is Skip Cheeseboro (Joe McCauley), the TV producer. His business school mentality can’t be bothered with Schulz’s philosophical quandaries over going through with it. Yet, he’s sharp enough to wield every ounce of industry doublespeak and faux multicultural appreciation in the service of securing the gruesome spectacle for his network. “But, realistically,” says Skip to his startled director, Emily Shapiro (Rebecca Prescott), who presumes that she came to shoot a commercial, “who am I to be disgusted?” McCauley’s cold and slippery performance make us doubt that he ever could be.

At least there’s lots of warmth and play in Prescott’s slightly ditzy director, Emily, whose distaste for the crucifixion gamely leads her to attempt seduction of the smitten General Barriaux. JP Pierson shows us some good, old, hippy practicality in his portrayal of Stanley. Stanley’s interrogation by General Barriaux shapes up to being an odd couple encounter of the oddest kind.

Stanley’s the BFF of the present-day Messiah, a miraculous, sensitive misfit who goes by the name of Ralph or Charlie or whatever he’s feeling that day. In fact Pierson’s performance holds a critical center in the last 15 minutes of the last scene of the play. On the industry night when I saw Resurrection Blues, this was the moment when the cast’s prodigious pace, maintained with accuracy and aplomb throughout, began to drag and lose momentum. It’s a bear of a closing scene, in which each character reveals the hypocrisy or authenticity of their motives for wanting Ralph, or Charlie, to stay and be crucified or to freely go. It has to be artificial enough to maintain the even feel of Miller’s satire, but also natural enough to evoke the spontaneity with which each character addresses their uncertain savior. Such things can be worked out in the middle of production, yet still exact crucial tests on a cast’s concentration.

Miller’s morality tale gets to have it all–worldly cynicism and the possibility of real love, truth told to power and power confessing its own grasping frailties, rage unleashed against stupefying oppression and holy relief from desiccating anger, overwhelming doubt and unyielding faith, and miracles, miracles in the most impossible places–especially in the most impossible places. Would that Miller had lived 50 years more to write comedies of this quality for every tragedy he gave us. We need him now more than ever.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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